Clinical Munster cruised to a seventh consecutive win in the Guinness PRO14 as they racked up a bonus-point victory over a depleted and struggling Zebre side in Limerick last night.
The win extended Munster’s lead at the top of Conference B to 16 points over second-placed Scarlets, both of whom have played seven games, with Connacht third, 17 points behind their interprovincial rivals having played two games less due to the string of Covid-19-related postponements..
The coronavirus was not Zebre’s cause for being undermanned. Michael Bradley was denied 20 players due to international call-ups and injury and the former Munster and Ireland scrum-half was forced to hand debuts to five players from the Italian club championship.
Coming on the evening after IRFU Performance Director backed the admission of South Africa’s four Super Rugby franchises to an expanded PRO16 in the interests of toughening up the league and Irish players for Test battles ahead, Zebre’s visit to Thomond Park was a timely reminder of the mismatches that can occur during international windows.
Munster had been forced into a change themselves when lock Fineen Wycherley was forced out with a groin strain, paving the way for a first PRO14 start for Ireland Under-20 and academy second row Thomas Ahern, with Tommy O’Donnell added to the bench to fill the breach.
Ahern, from Waterford, was one of five academy players named in Johann van Graan’s matchday 23 for Munster’s final game before the province’s Ireland contingent returns for the Heineken Champions Cup pool opener at home to Harlequins on December 13 with Kerry-born back-rower Jack Daly and Cork’s wing/centre Sean French named among the replacements,
French got his chance earlier than expected when full-back Matt Gallagher was injured attempting to touch down Munster’s second try of the opening half. Dan Goggin had scored the opener on eight minutes, the centre running onto a deft JJ Hanrahan chip over the Zebre line to touch down. Gallagher did the same on 21 minutes but failed to properly ground his effort under pressure from a tackle that also ended his involvement, the summer signing from Saracens leaving with his right arm supported by his jersey as a makeshift sling.
Munster simply got on with the job, Damian de Allende grabbing his maiden Munster try and the eventual second of the night five minutes later, profiting from a line off a dominant scrum picked off the back by Gavin Coombes, the No.8 offloading to the Springbok a metre or so out, though De Allende made light work of the three defenders in his way to score under the posts.
Munster’s dominant pack earned a penalty try as their driving maul produced a rash decision from Zebre No.8 to disrupt things, Lorenzo Masselli not only conceding a seven-pointer but earning 10 minutes in the sin bin for his troubles two minutes before the break.
There was more to come before half-time, though, as Goggin broke upfield from halfway, drew the last man in and then put Darren Sweetnam free with his pass to notch the bonus-point try on the stroke of 40 minutes, Hanrahan ending the half with his third conversion from three to give the home side a 28-3 interval lead.
The break did Zebre no favours, Hanrahan scoring himself three minutes into the second half and adding the conversion. When de Allende launched himself over the tryline three minutes later it had the makings of a landslide but referee Ben Whitehouse had other ideas, penalising a bemused Jack O’Donoughue for an obstruction earlier in the move.
Munster’s sixth try did come 11 minutes later on 57 minutes as the Reds struck off a five-metre lineout, one-out carriers taking the ball inside before scrum-half Nick McCarthy injected some zip, sending the back left to Gavin Coombes, whose neat flick gave Hanrahan time and space to fling a pass out wide to the waiting and unmarked French to add a first try to his memorable debut.
He was not the only young replacement to get in on the act, scrum-half Craig Casey adding to his burgeoning reputation with a dart over the line and then with the clock past 80, Ahern grabbed his first try to round things off with Munster’s eighth of a straightforward but satisfying victory.